The perfect Michael Jordan profile is some sort of journalistic unicorn by now—what's there to say about a guy about whom too much has been said already?—but Wright Thompson's story for ESPN is the closest we'll get to it.
His piece catches Jordan on the eve of his 51st year on Earth—somewhat obsessed with his own mortality, it seems—and makes the tempting case that we should learn to appreciate the man for his open bitterness and bite, instead of begrudging him for it. He can, in Thompson's words, "be a breathtaking asshole" sometimes. But if Michael Jordan is an asshole, he is an asshole we can learn to love in his old age, like—to crib from Noah Cross—politicians, ugly buildings, and whores. At 50, at least, he is finally granted the leeway to act like the old bastard he's always been.
Back when they used to shoot a lot of commercials, Jordan's security team would wait for him in his trailer while he was on set. A woman named Linda cooked Michael's meals, and he loved cinnamon rolls. She'd bake a tray and bring it to him. When it came time to film, he'd see the guards eyeing the cinnamon rolls and he'd walk over and spit on each one, to make sure nobody took his food.
He's still that guy, only with maybe a touch more self awareness (Jordan reports that his ego is "so big now that I expect certain things"). And he's still the most competitive person on earth. One evening he cusses his way through a Bobcats loss in Boston and then, switching over to a Utah-Miami game, deftly breaks down LeBron James' game. James tends to drive to the hoop when he dribbles right, and pulls up for a jumper when he dribbles left. Thus: "I'm gonna push him left so nine times out of 10, he's gonna shoot a jump shot. If he goes right, he's going to the hole and I can't stop him. So I ain't letting him go right." Later: "He's answering texts, buried in his phone, when the play-by-play guy announces a LeBron jump shot. Without looking up, Jordan says, 'Left?'"
He's also fairly certain that today's players—even James—couldn't hang with his era in the league:
Jordan plays his new favorite trivia game, asking which current players could be nearly as successful in his era. "Our era," he says over and over again, calling modern players soft, coddled and ill-prepared for the highest level of the game. This is personal to him, since he'll be compared to this generation, and since he has to build a franchise with this generation's players.
"I'll give you a hint," he says. "I can only come up with four."
He lists them: LeBron, Kobe, Tim Duncan, Dirk Nowitzki. As he's making his point, Yvette walks into the living room area and, in a tone of voice familiar to every husband who argues sports with his buddies, asks, "You guys need anything?"
When someone on TV compares LeBron to Oscar Robertson, Jordan fumes. He rolls his eyes, stretches his neck, frustrated. "It's absolutely … " he says, catching himself. "The point is, no one is critiquing the personnel that he's playing against. Their knowledge of how to play the game … that's not a fair comparison. That's not right … Could LeBron be successful in our era? Yes. Would he be as successful? No."
Happy birthday, Mike.